Some months ago, my elder son added a GPS app to my cell phone. Recently I visited the mega-city of Johannesburg in South Africa. The traffic at rush hour on the ring road around the city is so bad that the best way to change lanes is to step out of your car and climb into the one next to you.
Seriously? The solution is to get off the concrete highway (if you can) and negotiate your way through the suburbs. If you’re my husband, who has an excellent sense of direction, that makes sense. If you’re me—it doesn’t. You’ll never see me again.
My younger son and daughter-in-law, who live in Johannesburg, seemed to see this as a very real danger, so they gave us a GPS for the car. They—and I—knew very well Dad didn’t need one, so this was clearly an attempt to drive Mom right. This was the second GPS I received from my family in a matter of weeks. Anyone would think they didn’t want to lose me.
As most of you probably know—and I didn’t—the initials G.P.S. stand for Global Positioning System. This space-based navigational system is based on signals received from satellites which orbit the earth about 12,000 miles above us. Mind-blowing. Once I got used to the spooky feeling of being watched by unseen robotic eyes, I found it amazing. Driving along the long, deserted South African roads on the way home to Port Elizabeth, I found it comforting to think of all those eyes up there keeping watch over me. I had my husband in the car with me, but I know that next time I make a long trip on my own, I will often touch the bottom right corner of the screen to hear a pleasant-sounding lady reassuring me that she knows just where I am, even if I don’t.
I soon learned how to punch in new addresses into my GPS and listen to a calm voice who clearly knew the way to my destination. If I got stuck in traffic, I could try for the nearest exit and trust my robotic companion perched on the dashboard to “recalculate” and find me an alternate route. She never got annoyed, although I’m sure at times she wondered why she hadn’t been allocated to a Ferrari or a Mercedes with a switched-on driver. She even kindly reminded me of changes in the speed limit to prevent me getting a ticket! Sweet.
As long as I follow instructions, and the GPS is correctly programmed, I can be sure of arriving where I need to be. Even if I make a mistake along the way and miss a turning, she quickly “recalculates” and gets me back on track.
Mind you, I’ve heard a few horror stories of people who followed their GPSs into unsavoury locations, perhaps because there is more than one street with the same name. I hardly think we can blame the GPS for that—but it does show the need to double-check our destination on old-fashioned paper maps or new-fashioned Google maps before we set out on a journey.
As writers, the GPS has much to teach us.
1. We need to know where we want to go. Are we writing for children? Or is this a niche-specific article? Are we looking for a general address such as a woman’s magazine? Or are we aiming at a particular house such as breast-cancer survivors? We need to program our thinking clearly before we even start out on the journey.
2. We need a general idea of the directions to our chosen location. We may not have details on the exact plan we intend to follow, but we at least need to have an idea of where we’re headed. That will save many hours of frustration when we find the book we’re almost 2/3 of the way through writing is headed in the wrong direction.
3. It is good to know more eyes than ours are watching the article’s journey. We need critique partners who will look over our writing and say, “I think you need to do some recalculation in this chapter.” It’s good to have them offer alternative wording or a possible change to our direction.
4. It’s great to have companionship along the way. As writers, we tend to enjoy working in isolation, and it’s possible for our story to veer off track while we’re looking the other way. If we chat with someone else who knows the journey and where we’re aiming to go, we may hear words like, “What’s happening here? You seem to be changing direction.”
5. We need to follow the guidelines provided by the publishers, editors, or fellow authors. They are there to steer us along the right route. We shouldn’t think that because our Christmas children’s story is cute, it will be accepted by a woman’s magazine.
6. We need to keep track of the distance. I am beginning to get better at estimating, but when I first started using the GPS I can’t tell you how often I heard her say something like “In 400 meters, turn left.” I spotted a road to the left just ahead, so obediently slowed down and turned left. There would be a slight pause then a patient voice would intone, “Recalculating. Turn right and in 300 meters, turn left.” As we gain experience, we will get better at estimating word counts. But until then, it’s a good idea to work in a program such as MS Word with the word count visible. That will prevent the need to cut a 2,500 word article down to 250 words. (And yes, I’ve done that. More than once.) When the GPS says “turn in 400 meters” it means 400 meters. Turn after 100 and you’ll have to relocate—or get lost. If a publisher requires 500 words, they want 500 words. Offer more, and your story is likely to be relocated—to the trash can.
7. We need to listen to the GPS. If we don’t, we can hardly blame it if we get lost. There’s no point in having it on the dashboard if we don’t switch it on or if our music is louder than our guide’s voice. When writing, if we don’t follow the guidelines or listen to our internal GPS, we’re likely to get lost along the way.
Over to you. Can you think of any other similarities between the GPS in your car, and your writing journey? Next time you switch on the GPS, give some thought to your current writing project and ask if you need further direction to help you arrive at the right market.